Skip to main content

Let's say 'enough is enough' to lousy schools

By Geoffrey Canada
updated 7:46 AM EST, Tue November 26, 2013
Geoffrey Canada says we know what works in education; let's apply those lessons.
Geoffrey Canada says we know what works in education; let's apply those lessons.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Geoffrey Canada: Too little progress is being made in improving schools
  • If summer break sets kids back, let's try a longer school year, he says
  • Give kids health care, early childhood education to make them better prepared, he says
  • Canada: Schools need real-time data about student performance

Editor's note: Geoffrey Canada has been president and chief executive of Harlem Children's Zone since 1990. The nonprofit organization provides education, along with social services, for a 100-block area of Central Harlem in New York, serving 12,000 children. He was named one of America's Best Leaders by U.S. News and World Report in 2005 and was a member of the Time 100 in 2011.

(CNN) -- While the educational prospects for poor children have improved in the 50 years since I was a young boy going to PS 99 in the South Bronx, our country continues to needlessly lose the talents of millions of children because of a failing, entrenched public education system.

There are no shortages of great ideas in education, both small-scale and large-scale. There are some brilliant teachers and educators out there in the field. But we have not done much more than tinker at the edges of the system. For that reason, we have doomed massive numbers of children -- particularly those with the misfortune to be born poor -- to academic underachievement and having no real shot at the American dream of a comfortable middle-class life.

I believe that when large numbers of children fail academically, it is the responsibility of the adults around that child. The schools in my neighborhood in the South Bronx were lousy in the 1960s, and they are by and large still lousy today. Why wouldn't they be? They pretty much have not changed what they do. The kids aren't going to spontaneously get better by themselves.

Geoffrey Canada
Geoffrey Canada

We, as a country, need to say "enough is enough."

Anyone calling for reform is treated as a radical, but I think we simply need to let the science of education lead the way to real innovation and improvements. If the "summer melt" sets back our students academically -- particularly those in poor neighborhoods with few good summer options -- let's extend the school year.

If we know for a fact that the first three years of a child's life are incredibly important for a child's later learning, let's give up the idea that education starts in kindergarten and train new parents and work with 0-3 children as early as possible.

If you really want to be branded as a radical, suggest that we provide better health care and other services for children.

Watch Geoffrey Canada's TED Talk

Over the years, when I raised funds for health care for my kids, I would explain that kids with a toothache can't concentrate on classroom work or that a near-sighted kid without glasses may be classified as "slow" when he just can't see the board. I point out that kids need a safe, enriching environment after school, too. And that sports and arts programs can help a child find a focus and self-discipline that helps their academics.

As I've gotten older, when people push back on that kind of reasoning for wrap-around services, I just tell them I want to do it for a simple reason: I like kids. Or I tell them I want to do it for the same reasons they do it for their kids.

Taking care of children so they can succeed in school and life should be the floor, not the ceiling, of our expectations.

The science of evaluation and assessment also needs to be better incorporated into schools' standard operating procedure. We give students standardized tests in English and math, but schools get the results in July or August; the students and teachers have moved on, and so nothing is done with all this incredibly valuable data that we have spent a fortune obtaining. Teachers need data about how the children are progressing in real time so they can target their efforts at where the children really are.

We can't stifle innovation. Some promising approaches will fail, but that doesn't mean we should give up trying. We need to keep pushing until we nail what works. Look at the world of technology: When the Palm Pilot crashed and burned, no one took that as a signal to stop creating handheld devices.

As with any industry, research and development -- not to mention implementation -- takes money. But the cost of fixing our education system is a relative pittance.

What have we spent in Afghanistan in the past year in the name of national security? I would say that fixing our broken education system is similarly a matter of security for our country. The problems of the system are most obvious in poor communities, but the problems are everywhere: We are not preparing our children for a highly competitive global marketplace of high-skill jobs.

We are still the world's undisputed superpower. When the country cares about something, we spend the money. Americans need to wake up and see this for the widespread crisis it is. Join me in calling for a dramatic reform of our school system.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Geoffrey Canada.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:48 PM EDT, Sat October 25, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT